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What Are Groundhogs Really Looking For? Sex, for One

This February 2, get the true story of the Groundhog Day tradition in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

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When groundhogs peek their heads out of their burrows, it's because they’re looking for love.


"It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life."  

That's what actor Bill Murray said in the movie Groundhog Day, but that's hopefully not what the famous groundhog Phil will predict when he pops out of his burrow February 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. If Phil sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, tradition says there will be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't, there’ll be an early spring.

But is Phil—or any groundhog, for that matter—really acting as the Oracle of Spring when he pops out of his hole? Not quite, it turns out. (Watch Nat Geo Wild’s Groundhog Day marathon of Super Squirrel.)

Many male groundhogs do come out of their burrow on Groundhog Day, but not to see their shadow, Stam Zervanos, emeritus professor of biology at Penn State Berks in Reading said in a previous interview.

"At this time of year, males emerge from their burrows to start searching for the females," he explained. "The females come out probably seven days later and stay just outside of their burrow or maybe just inside their burrow."

After the males determine where the females are, both sexes "go back to their winter burrows and spend a little more time in hibernation."

"In March, they all emerge together, and that's when mating occurs," he said. "The males know exactly where the females are, [so] mating can occur very rapidly." (See “Groundhog Day Pictures: Punxsutawney Phil, Now and Then.”)

Where did the idea of the groundhog as winter weatherman originate?

Winter Weatherman

It's European in origin, says Zervanos. Groundhog Day is related to Candlemas, a mid-winter Germanic holiday that had a hedgehog as its weather forecaster. When German-speaking immigrants came to Pennsylvania, the tradition came with them.

These immigrants, the Pennsylvania Dutch, may have picked groundhogs as their new holiday mascot because they saw them emerge around Candlemas. But there was also a more practical reason to find a new representative from the animal kingdom.

"Obviously, we don't have hedgehogs in Punxsutawney," Katie Donald, executive director of the Groundhog Club said in a previous interview. (Get more Groundhog Day facts.)

The mission of the club, which celebrates its 130th Groundhog Day this year, is to protect and perpetuate the legend of Punxsutawney Phil. The group even holds a Groundhog Ball and sells memorabilia like towels emblazoned with the words "6 more weeks of winter."

Meet Phil

Phil isn't just unusual because he made a cameo appearance in a Bill Murray movie; he lives a life a wild groundhog can only dream of.

For one thing, Phil doesn't really come out of hibernation on Groundhog Day to look for a mate, because he doesn't hibernate at all. According to Donald, Phil doesn't need to hibernate because he lives in a man-made, temperature-controlled burrow at Barclay Square in downtown Punxsutawney.

His burrow is connected to the Punxsutawney Memorial Library by a glass window so that visitors can see Phil and his "wife" Phillis.

Although the pair make a cute tourist attraction, adult groundhogs don't normally live together. "They can get a little aggressive [with] each other if one comes too close to their burrow," said Zervanos.

Most groundhogs leave their mother when they are a few weeks to a few months old. That's when they dig their own burrows, where they live alone for the rest of their lives, except when they mate and rear their young.

So how many groundhogs have played the role of "Phil" since Punxsutawney's first Groundhog Day in 1887? The Groundhog Club isn't telling.

"There's only been one Phil," Donald maintains. "Every year [the club] has the groundhog picnic in the late summer or early fall, and at this picnic he drinks 'the elixir of life.'"

The elixir, which grants Phil seven additional years of life with each sip, is made with fruit, vegetables … and strawberry Kool-Aid.

Follow Becky Little on Twitter.

This story was originally published on February 1, 2015 under the title "Groundhogs Aren't Looking for Their Shadow—They're Scoping Out the Opposite Sex."

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